The scene couldn’t possibly have been more contrary to the popular image of American whiskey. Grizzled cowboys and tattooed, leather-vested bikers were in short supply at the JIDECO Hall in Bardstown, Kentucky. It was here that the Bourbon industry’s aristocracy, Louisville’s social set and international visitors from as far away as the Czech Republic and Japan, all elegantly attired, gathered to toast the conclusion of the 14th Annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Such is the face of Kentucky straight Bourbon whiskey today. It is no longer the rough brown liquor of yesteryear—instead it’s a refined spirit, marketed, as are single malt scotches, in dozens of different forms and declarations. It’s a radical shift in direction that has taken place over an astonishingly short period of time.
The last time I visited Bardstown for the Bourbon capital’s trademark festival was in 1997, when Jim Beam Brands was promoting their five-year-old Small Batch Bourbon Collection, including the now-legendary, barrel-strength Booker’s, first packaged a decade earlier by Master Distiller Booker Noe as a Christmas gift for his friends. At the time, it’s safe to say, the understanding and appreciation of high-end Bourbons was in its infancy.
Exploding Bourbon Market
Returning to Kentucky eight years later, it is apparent that the ultrapremium Bourbon market has exploded. And much like the festival itself, which struck me in ’97 as such a relatively modest affair, the appeal of Bourbon in general has grown almost exponentially.
The shift in the Bourbon market has been so dramatic, in fact, that some have been led to wonder whether it’s for real, or if the market for ultrapremium Bourbons has simply been sustaining itself through the tireless release of product after product. Certainly judging by the selection of spirits on offer at Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala, which included such brands as Woodruff Reserve, the new Four Roses Single Barrel and Barton Brands’ 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, the ultrapremium end of market is healthy enough. But is there enough interest and innovation in Bourbon that it will be able to fulfill the prediction of Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill Distilleries, and become in the next five to ten years "the most stylish whiskey in the world"?
Not surprisingly, those in the industry are optimistic. In the ultrapremium segment, they see a market that is only beginning to flower, buoyed by what Buffalo Trace Distillery Master Distiller Emeritus, Elmer T. Lee, characterized as a general trend in spirits consumption. "People are drinking less, but better," he told me at the Gala. "They want the high-end products."
Which is not to suggest that the men who make Bourbon are unaware of the necessity of dynamism in the marketplace. "Whether in automobiles, gift cards or fashion, you’ve got to be always changing," noted Jim Rutledge, master distiller and COO of the Four Roses Distillery. "It would be our worst mistake if we were to try to stand on our laurels."
Evolution of a Spirit
The challenge, then, becomes how to evolve, at an ultrapremium level, a spirit that by definition is mandated to contain at least 51 percent corn, must be distilled to no less than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol), enter the barrel at no greater than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol), be aged in new charred American White Oak for a minimum of two years, and contain no adulterants.
Age is obviously one way to differentiate a spirit, especially one that is already commonly aged four or more years, but according to Rutledge, the effect that aging can have has its limits.
"Scotch gets better with age and Bourbon really doesn’t," says Rutledge, who maintains that the ideal age for Bourbon is between four and eight years. "You can only do so much with age, [the Bourbon] just gets a little too woody, too harsh."
Rutledge’s ideal Bourbon age seems rather young, considering that several distillers offer bottlings aged 10 years or more. But the company at the forefront of age statement marketing, Old Rip Van Winkle, tacitly agrees that most Bourbons should be aged for less than a decade. In the promotional material for their 20 Year Old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, they state: "No other Bourbon today can stand 20 years of aging, but this Bourbon does it with style." This may be why most ultrapremium Bourbon brands are billed as either small batch or single-barrel, rather than sold based on age alone.
Small Batch or Single-Barrel
Of these two designations, "small batch" is the more confounding, given that there are no clear parameters defining what’s "small" and what is not. For their Small Batch Bourbon Collection, Jim Beam Brands says that "as the name suggests, a Small Batch Bourbon is made in limited quantities," but notes no case production limits. For their Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old Small Batch Bourbon, Heaven Hill is more specific, avowing that the brand is "bottled exclusively from a dumping of 100 barrels or less." Meanwhile, the roughly 600,000 cases of Maker’s Mark that are bottled yearly are mingled, or blended, in batches of no more than 19 barrels, although no mention of "small batch" is made on the label.
Fortunately, the single-barrel issue is a little more straightforward. "We as master distillers have always been privileged to drink the best Bourbon out there," says Barton Brands master distiller Greg Davis, the youngest master distiller in Kentucky. "Finally, a company decided to capitalize on that [with Blanton’s] and we’re all so happy they did."
What Davis is referring to is what’s known in the trade as the "honey barrel": That one barrel that has aged just the right amount of time in just the right place in the warehouse. With the advent of single-barrel bottling, which is precisely as it sounds, the bottling of Bourbon barrel by barrel, these "honey barrels" became available to Bourbon aficionados beyond the master distiller’s friends and family.
Although distillers have traditionally been loath to reveal their mashbills, or the ingredients of their Bourbons, lately there has been a greater willingness to open up for publicity’s sake. Maker’s Mark was one of the first in this regard, years ago proudly declaring that their Bourbon was "wheated," that is, made from corn, barley malt and wheat, rather than the more typical corn, barley malt and rye. More recently, Four Roses has been quietly boasting that their single-barrel Bourbon contains an unusually high proportion of rye, a full 35 percent of the total mashbill, thus creating a distinctively spicy Bourbon.
This, as it turns out, is just the tip of the iceberg. Blazing a new trail is the recently released Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey, which is, of course, not a Bourbon because it does not contain the minimum 51 percent corn content, but is nevertheless an American whiskey designed to appeal to the ultrapremium Bourbon market. Following closely behind is the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Four Grain, the first Bourbon crafted from corn, barley, rye and wheat. It is the initial offering of what is intended to be a series of highly unusual, limited-edition releases.
Beyond that, according to Four Roses’ Rutledge, there are still many directions in which Bourbon can go to "do something a little bit different," from double barreling Bourbons in the fashion of some Scottish distillers, to crafting experimental blue corn Bourbon, which is currently happening at the Quaking Aspen Distillery, a fledgling micro-distiller in Utah. And it could be that when all these avenues have finally been explored, Bourbon may very well assume its place as "the most stylish whiskey in the world."
Bourbon Cocktail recipes from contributing editor Stephen Beaumont